Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 Trawling

 

 

Suddenly, the engines screamed as the boat jerked violently to a stop, and everyone was thrown forward.  Now the boat seemed to be going in reverse as the swell they’d just climbed over caught up with them and crashed into the stern.  Water poured over the back of the boat.

“Dad!”  Luke LaCroix shouted.  His tennis shoes squeaked on the wet deck as he kept himself from falling.  He was sure they were sinking.

Luke’s father picked himself up off the deck where he’d fallen hard.  Before he could make his way back to the helm, another swell caught up to the boat and crashed over the stern.  The white picnic basket at the back of the boat was half under water and soaked.

“Tommy, shut it down!”  Mr. Sonnier shouted over the high-pitched strain of the engines.  He’d dropped his paperback book in the excitement, and it was now floating pages-open in the water.  Mr. Sonnier braced his tall, heavy body against the slant of the boat.  Luke’s father cut the wheel before idling the engines.  With the stern no longer into the oncoming swell, the water wasn’t pouring into the boat anymore.

“What are we gonna do?”  Luke said.  He was terrified at the thought of sinking.

“Mais, everything’s gonna be okay, T-Luke,” Mr. Sonnier said.  “It’s gonna be awright, boy.”

The wide-bodied, 25’ Bertram sat level on the water now, the broad swell rolling under the boat. The half foot of water in the stern began draining, the paperback slowly spiraling in a small eddy over the drain grate. The trawl lines no longer trailed behind them, but instead slanted off to the side, taut against the pull of the boat. Luke’s father tugged on one of the ropes like he expected to pull what the boat couldn’t. After a moment he gave up red-faced. “Goddammit,” he shouted.

Mr. Sonnier held his big, doughy chin in his large hand.  “Mais, whatcha think it is, huh, Tommy?”

“It’s snagged, that’s what it is,” Luke’s father said.  “Brand new goddamn net, too.”

“Let’s back up and pull in as much line as we can,” Mr Sonnier said.  “Maybe we can unsnag it from another angle.  I can’t imagine what it is, but maybe we can work it loose.”  Mr. Sonnier talked in a voice that calmed Luke.  He was taking control, and it seemed to settle down Luke’s father, just as he was about to explode.  Luke was glad Mr. Sonnier was there.

Luke hadn’t always been happy having Mr. Sonnier along.  Luke wasn’t sure why, but in the beginning he didn’t like Mr. Sonnier.  He didn’t like it when Mr. Sonnier started going trawling with them.  He was different than his father’s other fishing friends, the ones that had gone trawling with them in the past.  It was different back then, when they’d roughed it on the boat, eating stale saltines and sardines, potted meat, and Vienna sausages for lunch—what Luke considered man’s food.  But over time Luke had accepted Mr. Sonnier and the extravagant lunches he always packed for everyone—chicken salad, boudin balls, deviled eggs, fruit cocktail, French bread, homemade brownies.  Even etouffe once.  What Luke couldn’t get used to, though, was the enormous white picnic basket in which Mr. Sonnier packed everything.  Luke’s father teased Mr. Sonnier about the basket, seeming to feel the same way about it as Luke.  It always embarrassed Luke, having to load the basket onto the boat at the marina, along with the other things you’d expect to see men load onboard a boat.  Like the several ice chests, the trawl net, and its two heavy wooden boards, tackle boxes, rods and reels—the things men were expected to use on a boat. 

Now Luke’s father stood at the stern, a hand shielding his eyes from the glare.  He’d calmed down.  “There aren’t any reefs off Redfish Point,” he said.  “Are there, Sonny?” 

Luke’s father looked out toward land, at the small peninsula of marsh that jutted out into the gulf like a bridge connecting to nowhere.  Then he looked out at the water off the port side and at the two trawl lines that dipped at an angle into the water. 

“Mais, look at that, even the float’s under water,” Mr. Sonnier said.  The gallon milk jug that was tied to the trail line was no longer afloat.  “It doesn’t get that deep here, uh?”

“It’s not supposed to be more than ten to twelve feet,” Luke’s father said.  “Hell, I should know, I’ve trawled here enough.”

“Maybe the net’s full and the boat can’t pull it anymore,” Luke said.

Luke’s father and Mr. Sonnier looked at Luke.  They didn’t know what he was talking about. 

Luke said, “Remember that time Mr. Broussard told us how someone he knew hit a school of shrimp?”

Luke envisioned the net filled with shrimp.  The idea had him excited.

“Oh, no Luke, I don’t think that’s what it is, son,” Luke’s father said, almost laughing, seeming to have forgotten how mad he was that his new 16-foot trawl net was snagged on something down at the bottom of the Gulf.  “God, I wish that’s what it was, but I’m afraid the net’s just hung up on something.”

“Mais, I don’t know, Tommy,” Mr. Sonnier said.  “T-Luke might be onto somethin’, uh.”

“Sonny, c’mon,” Luke’s father said.  “You’re both dreaming.”

“Well, then we just gonna have to see, won’t we?” Mr. Sonnier said, giving Luke a wink.

They pulled in the ropes as much as they could and then motored around the area in a tight circle, trying to work the net free.  Still, the net remained anchored solidly.

“Damn thing is stuck for good,” Luke’s father said.

“Talk about,” Mr. Sonnier said.

“So whatcha think?”

“Well, Tommy, I know it’s not what you wanna hear,” Mr. Sonnier said, “but I think we gonna have to leave it here.”

“No way, Sonny.  We’re not cutting the ropes.  That’s a brand new net.  I just got it.”

“Then we gonna have to dive for it,” Mr. Sonnier said, like he’d saved the idea and now it was the only thing left to say.  “I figure if we follow the ropes down we bound to find out what it’s hung up on.  If we can’t un-snag it, we can always cut it loose.”

Luke could tell by watching his father that the idea made a lot of sense.  “I think we can move the boat a little closer,” his father said.  “That’ll allow us a straighter dive down.”

“I figure that’d put us about right there,” Mr. Sonnier said, pointing to a spot on the water.

Luke looked on with interest as the two men continued talking.  He wondered if they would strip down or if they would make the dive with their clothes on.  He wondered what Mr. Sonnier would look like in his underwear.

Luke’s father maneuvered the boat over the spot where they’d decided the net was snagged, and now the two trawl lines angled straight down into the water.  Luke’s father turned the bow into the swell, holding the position.

Luke wanted to help.  He wanted his father to know he wanted to help, but there wasn’t anything for him to do.  After a while his father and Mr. Sonnier seemed to finally have it all figured out.

“Luke,” his father said.  “We need to talk.”

Something was wrong.  He knew what his father was about to say.

“Please don’t make me do it, Dad.”  The thought of swimming in the Gulf, where he’d caught sharks, scared him.

“Son, there’s no other way.  Do you have any suggestions, because I don’t know what else to do.”  His father looked toward the bow, where Mr. Sonnier was lowering the anchor to hold the boat steady and in line with the oncoming swell.  Luke could tell his father didn’t want Mr. Sonnier to hear what he was about to say.  “Can you picture that big clumsy coon-ass swimming around down there?”

Luke had already imagined it.  He’d laughed at the idea.  But now it wasn’t funny.  “Couldn’t we just pull on it some more with the boat?” he said, knowing as he said it that it would anger his father.

“Luke, we’ve pulled on it already,” his father said, his voice rising.  “You saw us pull on it, didn’t you?  It’s stuck.”

Luke could see Mr. Sonnier moving toward them from the bow along the narrow starboard walkway, careful on the wet decking.

“Dang, Tommy,” Mr. Sonnier said.  “Mais, I don’t see why you gotta go and jump all over him like that.”

“Was I talking to you, Sonny, because I don’t think I was.  I was talking to Luke, okay?  So why don’t you stop telling me how to raise my son and go put away the picnic basket.  It’s in the way.” 

The white basket still sat at the back of the boat, where it’d been when the trawl net snagged.  They’d just finished lunch before it happened, before Mr. Sonnier had had a chance to stow the basket below deck.  Mr. Sonnier looked toward the basket now, but he didn’t move.  While Mr. Sonnier was physically bigger than Luke’s father, Luke’s father was big in a more frightening way.  Luke once saw men larger than his father step aside as he and his father walked down the sidewalk in town.  Mr. Sonnier might have been tall with an enormous belly, but there wasn’t anything threatening about him.  He was always reading books, even on the boat.

“You still standing there?” Luke’s father said to Mr. Sonnier.

“Yeah, I’m still standin’ here,” Mr. Sonnier said.

Luke liked that Mr. Sonnier always stood up for him, but he hated it the way it set off his father.

“Well, what are you waiting for, Luke?” his father said.  “Goddamn, boy, let’s go. Get your shoes off, unless you’re planning on swimming in them.”

“C’mon, Tommy.  What’s a matter with you, uh?” Mr. Sonnier said.

Luke felt Mr. Sonnier’s large, heavy arm fall around his neck, feeling like a sack of dog food on his shoulder. 

“He’s being a baby, that’s what’s the matter,” Luke’s father said.  “He says he’s afraid to go in the water.”

“Heck, Tommy,” Mr. Sonnier said.  “He’s what, eleven years old?  Cut’em some slack, uh.”

“He’s twelve, and you’re as bad as his mother.”

Without saying anything, Mr. Sonnier sat on one of the ice chests and started removing his shoes.

“Damnit, Sonny, I’m sure,” Luke’s father said.  “ Look at you.”

“Whatcha mean ‘look at me,’ you son of a buck?” 

“Sonny, all I’m saying is you’re in no condition.”

“And all I’m sayin’ is if T-Luke doesn’t wanna go in, then I don’t think he should.”

“Luke, I can’t believe you’re gonna make this old man go in the water.”

“Old man?” Mr. Sonnier said.  “Mais, I ain’t that much older than you.” 

“Okay, I’ll do it,” Luke said.

“Mais, you don’t have to, no,” Mr. Sonnier said.

“I don’t mind,” Luke said.

Mr. Sonnier stood up and put his arm around Luke’s shoulder again.  “It’s probably no more than ten feet deep.  Twelve, tops,” he said.  “A strong swimmer like you?  Mais, you won’t have no problem with a shallow dive like that.”

Luke looked over the side of the boat, seeing only water as deep as he could see.  It looked bottomless.  Then he noticed his own reflection, a desperate face rising and falling with the boat that lifted and dropped as the swell continued rolling under them.

“It’ll be like diving in the deep end of the pool at the country club,” Luke’s father said.  “You always swim there, don’t you?”

“I guess so,” Luke admitted.

Luke hadn’t thought of it that way.  He could stay down at the deep end of that pool a long time.  He’d always pretended he was diving in the ocean at the pool, and now here he was about to do just that, and it was nothing like he’d imagined.

“Yeah, T-Luke, you a fish, boy,” Mr. Sonnier said.  “Mais, you belong in the ocean.” 

Luke began to feel good about himself.  It was true, he was a good swimmer.  Without saying anything, he pulled off his t-shirt.  He kicked off his wet tennis shoes, not bothering with the laces.  He approached the back corner of the stern from where he would dive.

“Okay, Luke, just follow the rope down,” Luke’s father instructed.  “When you get to the bottom, just feel around and see what the net’s snagged on.  We’ve stirred up the bottom, so you might not be able to see a whole lot, but you should be able to get an idea just by using your hands.”

Luke didn’t say anything.  He was listening, but not hearing anything his father said.

“Don’t try and do everything at once,” Mr. Sonnier added.  “Come up for air if you need to breathe.  And remember to keep clear of the props.”

The two men helped Luke up onto the gunwale, where he stood looking down at the water.  The sun blazed directly overhead, and he felt the sun’s rays move up and down his bare back like a lot of hot fingers.

“Take a deep breath, Luke, and hold it,” his father said.

Luke took three deep breaths.  He held the third breath and dove in.  Now under water, he didn’t open his eyes as he searched blindly with his hand for one of the two descending trawl lines.  The water at the surface felt warm.  As he found one of the taut ropes and began pulling himself down, the water became steadily cooler, then cold.

He began to feel the same pressure in his ears he always felt at the drain of the country club pool, and he figured he was at about ten feet.  The sound of the boat’s engines had weakened and no longer sounded like a boat’s engines anymore.  It no longer sounded like it came from above, but rather from a distance, a faraway hum.

Luke slowed his progress and, without letting go of the rope, he felt for the bottom with an outstretched hand.  But it wasn’t there.  As he continued down farther, he suddenly felt alone.  There didn’t seem to be a bottom, and he wanted to tell his father.  As he began to bring his hand back to the rope, it brushed against something.  It startled him, and he screamed, releasing a mass of air bubbles that raced toward the surface.  He was afraid to open his eyes for fear of what he might see.  Using the rope, he darted quickly back toward the surface.  The water warmed and the sound of the boat’s engines grew stronger and sounded like a boat’s engines again.  He exploded onto the surface of the water and swam wildly toward the boat.  He reached his hand toward Mr. Sonnier, who hung an arm over the side.  Mr. Sonnier gripped Luke’s wrists tightly.

“Hurry!”  Luke screamed.

“Dang it, T-Luke, hold still, boy, or I’ll lose my grip,” Mr. Sonnier said.  Then in one motion, Luke was out of the water standing on deck, gasping for air.

“Mais, Tommy, he’s hyperventilatin,’” Mr. Sonnier said.

“What’s a matter, Luke?” his father said.

“Calm down, T-Luke.  Everything’s okay, boy,” Mr. Sonnier said, rubbing a warming friction back into Luke’s chilled arms and shoulders.

Luke, still regaining his breath, looked back over the side of the boat.  He was certain he would see something there.

“Luke, what is it?” his father said.

“I don’t know,” Luke said.  “I think something was after me.”

“What do you mean something was after you?” his father said, the concerned look disappearing from his face.

“Mr. Sonnier, didn’t you see it?” Luke said.  “It was down there and it came after me.”

“Mais, I didn’t see nuttin, Luke,” Mr. Sonnier said.  “Was it a big fish?  Maybe one of them barracudas?  Did you see what it was?”

“I don’t know,” Luke said.  “But it’s a lot deeper than ten feet, I can tell you that.”

“Heck, Tommy, whatcha think it coulda been, uh?” Mr. Sonnier said, now drying off Luke with a towel that was coarse and mildewed from the long time it’d been in the dankness of the front cabin. 

“I think it’s his imagination, that’s what I think,” Luke’s father said.  “I don’t doubt he’s scared, that’s obvious.  But he was scared before he went in.”

“Dad, I swear,” Luke said.

“This is something you need to get over, son.  And the only way to do that is to get back in the water.”

“Tommy, you can’t,” Mr. Sonnier said.  “Mais, he’s scared to death, him.”

“I can’t, huh?  Watch me.”

Mr. Sonnier sat back down on the ice chest and removed his shoes.  “You may be able to make him go back in,” he said, “but you can’t keep me from goin’ with him.”  Mr. Sonnier rose from the ice chest.  He struggled to pull off the damp shirt that clung to his wet skin, exposing the tremendous belly that made up so much of his bulk.  His stomach hung in folds and was pasty and spotted with random patches of black hair.  Without taking off his khaki chinos, Mr. Sonnier approached the stern.

“Sonny, you’re not going anywhere, so put your damn shirt back on,” Luke’s father said.  “This has gone far enough.  You’re really starting to piss me off.”

“It’s no big deal, Tommy,” Mr. Sonnier said.  “Besides, I’m hot.  A dip in the ocean’ll feel good.”  He began stretching his large arms, flapping them to the sides.  He looked like he would sink straight to the bottom.

“It’s okay, Mr. Sonnier,” Luke said.  “I don’t mind trying again.”

“See, Sonny, he wants to do it,” Luke’s father said.

“Then we’ll do it together,” Mr. Sonnier said.  “Mais, it sounds like a two-man job, anyway, uh,”  Mr. Sonnier winked at Luke, before letting himself topple awkwardly over the side of the boat, creating a terrific splash.  He disappeared beneath the surface before resurfacing behind the boat.  “Ready, Luke?” he said, his pasty skin taking on a greenish hue in the cloudy water.

Luke jumped in next to Mr. Sonnier.

“Be careful, Sonny,” Luke’s father said.  “Don’t strain yourself, you old coon-ass.”

“Don’t you worry ’bout me,” Mr. Sonnier said.  Then he turned to Luke .  “Grab you ahold a the rope and follow me.”

“Keep an eye on him, Luke.  Be careful.”

Mr. Sonnier started counting.  On the third breath they both went under.  Luke felt around with his eyes closed and found the rope.  Mr. Sonnier was directly beneath him and, once more, the water got colder as Luke followed the rope down.  His ears began to hurt again.  He could feel the movement on the rope that Mr. Sonnier made and could tell the big man still continued down.  Luke wasn’t afraid the way he’d been when alone, and he slowly opened his eyes.  He realized he could see for about six or seven feet in all directions.  Below him, and in the darkening, yellow murkiness, he saw the large white blur of a figure that was Mr. Sonnier leaving the rope.

Before, the rope had been Luke’s security, but now his security was Mr. Sonnier, and Luke left the rope in pursuit of him.  Mr. Sonnier had gotten a little ahead, and Luke was losing sight of him.  As Luke pushed himself on, he brushed something with his hand.  It was unfamiliar to the touch, but only because he’d never felt a trawl net under water before.  It didn’t take long for him to make that distinction, and without panicking he followed the net with his hand and found that it was now arching over him.  Then Mr. Sonnier’s face appeared a few inches in front of Luke, shouting something in a cloud of air bubbles.  It was unclear what he said, but Luke knew they needed to go back.  Luke turned and swam as quickly as he could.  Once clear of the net, he shot upward.  He felt his lungs beginning to burn as he broke the surface.  The boat was behind him now, rising and dropping under a swell.  Luke turned and swam toward the stern, where his father stood searching the water with a hand shielding his eyes.  “Where’s Mr. Sonnier?” he shouted.

“He was right behind me.”  Luke struggled to breathe as he got the words out.  “We were under the net.” 

“Oh, God,” Luke’s father said, and without kicking off his shoes he dove in and was underwater.

Luke didn’t know what to do.  He remained where he was, treading water. Then, two heads appeared on the surface.  Luke’s father held onto Mr. Sonnier.  They both gasped for air, coughing and spitting out water.

“Luke,” his father said.  “Get back onboard and throw us the life ring.”

Luke moved as fast as he could to the back of the boat, where he found the small step that jutted out there.  He lifted himself from the water and hauled himself over the gunwale.  He could see that Mr. Sonnier was conscious, but weak.  The big man’s eyes were tightly shut.  Luke tossed the life ring to his father, who then gave it to Mr. Sonnier to help him stay afloat.  Then Luke unlatched the ladder from a rack on the side panel and quickly hung it over the stern.  His father remained in the water, waiting for Mr. Sonnier to regain his strength.

After a while, Mr. Sonnier seemed to catch his breath.  “There was at least one other net down there that I guess someone else lost,” he said.  He began breathing heavily again.  He shook his head.  “Mais, I didn’t realize it ’til we were already under it.”

“Don’t talk, Sonny,” Luke’s father said.  “I think you had a heart attack.”

“I just thank God, me, that T-Luke got out okay,” Mr. Sonnier said.  Now he looked at Luke, looking like he might cry.  It made Luke feel like he might cry.  “Mais, I can’t bear to think of it,” he added.  “I don’t know what I woulda done.”

“Take it easy, Sonny,” Luke’s father said.  “We’ve got to get you back on the boat.

With the help of Luke’s father, Mr. Sonnier slowly ascended the ladder.  He paused momentarily at the top rung before rolling heavily over the stern and onto the deck, where he lay on his back, his large, wet belly rising and falling as he breathed in deep guttural moans, his eyes tightly shut again.

Luke’s father climbed aboard as fast as he could.  After pulling up the ladder, he tossed it to the deck.  As he moved quickly toward the starboard corner, he tripped over the picnic basket that was still sitting there.  “Goddammit,” he yelled at the basket, looking like he might kick it.  Instead, he picked it up and threw it overboard as far as he could.  The basket didn’t sink, and as it rolled onto its side its lid fell open, releasing the contents.  Luke’s father un-cleated the two trawl lines and let them sink to the bottom with the net.  Then he hurried to the bow to raise the anchor.  He didn’t speak the whole time. 

Luke still stood there, not knowing what to do.  He wanted to go in after the picnic basket.  He wanted to bring it back onboard.

“Don’t just stand there, Luke,” his father said.  “Prop his head up with something.”  The urgency in his father’s voice scared Luke into action.  “C’mon, son, hurry.”

Luke propped up Mr. Sonnier’s head with the life ring.  Luke wanted to say something to him.  He wanted to say he was sorry.

With the anchor now onboard, Luke’s father crouched over Mr. Sonnier.  “How you making out, Sonny?”

Mr. Sonnier shook his head.  “I’ve felt better,” he said, forcing a weak laugh that came out as a cough.  He opened his eyes for the first time since coming back onboard.  “How fast you think we can make it in?”

“We’ll head for Intracoastal City,” Luke’s father said.  “I’ll radio ahead for an ambulance.”

“You know, T-Luke was right,” Mr. Sonnier said.  “The bottom is a helluva lot deeper than we figured.  It must be the base of an abandoned oil rig or something.  Mais, you shouldn’t a jumped all over him like that.”

“I didn’t know,” Luke’s father said.

“Well, now you know,” Mr. Sonnier said.  Then he closed his eyes again as tightly as before.

Luke’s father didn’t look at Luke.  He didn’t say anything.  Then he began moving quickly again, moving toward the helm.  He gave the boat full throttle, and Luke had to brace himself to keep from falling on top of Mr. Sonnier.

“Luke, take the wheel,” his father shouted, and Luke struggled to approach the controls, fighting against the angle of the boat that was still planing off.  His father pointed at a position on the distant shoreline.  “Head for that cut, okay?  See it?  That’s Four-Mile canal.  It’ll take us to Intracoastal City.”

For the first time Luke realized how serious it was.  Now he thought he would cry.  “Dad, is he gonna be all right?”

“I don’t know,” his father said, still not looking at Luke.  Luke could tell by the way his father said it that he really didn’t know.

“Shouldn’t we leave a marker to show where the net is?” Luke said.

“What?” his father said.  “What the hell’s the matter with you?”

But Luke didn’t mean that they should leave a marker so they could come back to reclaim the net.  And as the boat headed inland, now free from the trawl lines, Luke looked back at the spot where they’d left the net.  The only indication being the white wicker picnic basket in the swirl of water the boat had made in its quick departure.  The basket’s contents—the Styrofoam cartons of potato salad, cold slaw and pork and beans, the Tupperware containers of ham, cheese and homemade brownies, and the packages of fancy paper plates and matching yellow napkins—were now all scattered over the water.  Moments later the water would smooth over and the picnic basket, and all its contents would be carried away by the current.  Then the deep oil pit, along with the abandoned trawl nets, would be hidden again, offering no warning of what lay waiting there.

 

David P. Langlinais’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in South Dakota Review, Saint Ann’s Review, Los Angeles Review, Prick of the Spindle, Dos Passos Review, Big Muddy, The MacGuffin, and others. He’s from southwest Louisiana and lives with his wife and daughter in Dallas, where he works as a freelance copywriter. When not writing, David is likely cooking a gumbo.